By December 9, 2015

Gaming of Hard Work

Recently, while reading Soft Skills, I came across a passage which I found interesting. John Sonmez wrote, “Why is it that I have no problem playing a videogame for hours at a time – which arguably may involve quite a bit of mental strain – but I can’t seem to get myself to type out the words to a blog post?” Later on he added, “To be honest with you, I don’t think I could give you a good reason why this is so.”

When I read this passage, I realized I knew the reason. In addition to being fun, many video games are designed to draw us in and motivate us to play for long periods of time. It’s not just the story or setting. Games employ specific mechanics that encourage us to do “just one more thing.”

For example, many games break down the gameplay into a series of short, well defined tasks that give us instant feedback. This can be a powerful tool for accomplishing hard work.

Dungeon Running

Dungeons Palace BackgroundFirst, some background. On a few nights a week, you’ll find me logging into my current game, Final Fantasy XIV. Once I’ve loaded, I’ll enter the queue for a dungeon, and roughly 25 minutes later, I’ll leave it. FFXIV’s patch cycle is 3 months, which means I’ll also be running the same set of dungeons for 3 months.

The mechanics of the boss fights don’t change. The makeup of the mob groups doesn't change. The items that drop don’t change. For 3 months, I am doing the exact same thing a few nights a week. Sounds boring, right? Yet I can do it without much effort.

I could take that same time and spend it writing blogs posts or authoring training courses for sites likes Pluralsight or Udemy. I could work on side projects from Upwork. I could learn new skills. Yet, when I sit down to these things, which are more mentally stimulating than running the same dungeon over and over, I stall. I find reasons not to do these things. In contrast, I find little reason not to run a dungeon, even though in the long run, it won’t be as valuable as the other activities I mentioned.

Why Is This?

High level gear in FFXIV is segmented into multiple tiers. The highest tier gear is acquired by upgrading the second highest tier gear. I collect tokens to buy the (second) highest tier gear, which I then acquire after buying these items from a vendor. For example, the best weapon for my character is the Deathbringer. In order for me to get this weapon, I need two other items. The first is the Illuminati Gobdip, which is a reward from defeating the most challenging dungeon in the game. The second item I need is the Antiquated Deathbringer, which I buy from a vendor using the tokens.

The best way to earn tokens is by running those dungeons. With the current patch release, it would take me roughly 13 weeks to get a full set of gear. That’s actually a hard limit; there's a cap on the number of tokens I can earn per week. While running the same set of dungeons seems boring, it’s important for you to note:

  1. Dungeons take 30 minutes to complete on average.
  2. There’s a daily bonus for tokens.
  3. My role in the game is a tank. I am responsible for forcing the mobs to pay attention to me while the other players attack them.
  4. The dungeon doesn’t change, the mechanics don’t change, and the mob groups don’t change.
  5. I can only earn 450 tokens per week. After that, I need to find something else to do if I want to keep playing.

Still, Why?

Doing the same activity almost daily for 13 weeks can seem incredibly tedious. Compared to writing a blog post, it can seem a lot harder. Yet, I’m able to accomplish this with little effort. Why? The game is design to play into my innate desire for instant gratification. When I finish the dungeon for the day, I get more tokens. Then, when I have enough tokens, I can buy a new item. I've taken the original 13-week goal and broken it down into weekly goals. I don’t focus on the entire set; I focus on the next item that I want. Every day, I’m rewarded with small results that over time build into medium results, which result in the end goal.

There’s a sayingDepositphotos_48376885_m-2015 that goes:

“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time”.

The power of repeated, time-boxed, well-defined, and limited action is incredible for accomplishing large tasks like writing a book, studying for a final exam, or launching a business. When you play games, you’ll see that many of your actions are broken down into bite-sized pieces. You do something small like run a dungeon, compete in a single match, launch 5 birds, etc. Then you get immediate results.

In my case:

  • I make daily progress.
  • The dungeons take a short time to complete.
  • The task, the environment, and my role in it are well defined.
  • I’m limited in what I can do. I can’t spend endless hours acquiring tokens. Once I’ve gotten the 450 tokens, I need to move on to another activity.
  • Tokens are rewarded


In talks about productivity, many of the elements I’ve listed are present.

Overworked woman in front of a window full with notesThe short, well-defined task forms the core of the Pomodoro technique. This powerful time management technique involves breaking up your time into well defined segments. For a period of 25 minutes, known as a pomodoro, you simply focus on the task at hand, removing as many distractions as you can. Once the pomodoro is over, you reward yourself with a short (5 minute) break period. Every 3 to 4 Pomodoros, you take a longer break.

Daily practice and application help form habits. Tracking and measuring are powerful motivators.

I know, for example, based on my weekly limit, how long it will take me to get the armor. I know what pieces of armor I should have by a given date. As that date approaches, I’ll know if I am going to hit my small deadline. If I am in danger of not making that deadline, I’ll do a little more in game to make up for the missing tokens.

The last part of using smaller rewards that lead to bigger rewards isn’t mentioned all that often. This is gamification, where aspects of a game are applied to a non-gaming context. It’s a powerful tool that has many applications, productivity being one. It’s been applied to such areas as learning, physical exercise, and improving user engagement. Most people on a mobile device will recognize apps such as Zombies, Run!, HabitRPG, and Fitocracy; these are all examples of using gamification to help people build better habits and exercise.

For example, we can break down a book into chapters and then work on each chapter. At the end of each chapter, reward yourself with something. What? That’s a good question and only one you can answer. (I’d recommend against using food or money.) If you can find a way to use those rewards to make progress towards a much larger goal, that’s even better!


One more thing I should mention. I can’t cheat the system in FFXIV. If I want those items, the only way I will get them is if I do the work. In other words, I’m accountable to the vendor. I can’t cheat the system by rewarding myself early.

That helps to keep me focused.


As you’re achieving your real-life goal, talk to a trusted friend, your significant other, or close family member, have them hold onto your reward, and be accountable to them.

Wrapping it up

Creating a blog post, working on that side project, launching a business are all things many of us want to do, but after the initial motivation has worn off, we may find ourselves distracted and frustrated.

If we break that project down into smaller, focused steps, and then create rewards for accomplishing those smaller steps, we find the desire to push through the harder parts of the job a lot easier.

So, what are you going to reward yourself with?

About the author

    Robert Whitcomb

    Robert is a software developer with a decade of experiencing in multiple paradigms. He currently focuses on building web applications in ASP.NET as well as business process automation, and can be found on LinkedIn or on Twitter at @delmania.